Students build futures in old-school shop classes

By: Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle 

Derek Kwan, 17, tightens a bolt on a Porsche 914 during auto shop class at
Washington High School. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

Several engine blocks sat on racks near an early 1980s white Volkswagen Rabbit and a slightly beat-up, bright yellow Porsche 914 on a lift.

A greasy garage smell wafted out the door.

High school students - including one in a Members Only jacket, another in a "Star Wars" shirt and a third in a Robert Plant concert T - tinkered with wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools, a couple huddled under the Porsche.



Last week.

Along with '80s pop culture, high school auto shop has made a comeback at Washington High School in San Francisco, with students learning the ins and outs of car repair and maintenance and earning elective course credit for it.

The class is among a growing list of career-based courses at high schools that offer students a taste of possible vocations - much like the old shop classes - while acknowledging that college is still critical for the vast majority of 21st century job options.

The course was added to the school's list of electives last year. At Washington and across the country, old-school shop classes were phased out over the past few decades as public education rejected the tracking of students into either college or blue-collar careers. In recent years, schools have revisited the idea, creating career-based classes that often count as a college-prep courses as well as providing exposure to different lines of work. Courses in hospitality, construction and medicine are among the offerings.

The new future

While it feels like a blast from the past, the course is intent on helping students find a future, said Principal Ericka Lovrin.

"It's not so much the old vocational" education, she said. "It's preparing students for the new future of technology and industry."

And in that future, as in the past, people will be driving cars.

People will be needed to design them, build them, test them, plan for them and, yes, fix them. All of those skills will probably need education past high school, if not a college degree.

Many of today's teens, however, don't know much about cars or motorcycles or trucks, how they work or how to do basic repairs.

And the students often don't know what a socket wrench is, or the difference between a Phillips screwdriver and a flat head.

The course curriculum includes all that, said teacher Andre Higginbotham, a high school history teacher who wanted to be a mechanic when he was a child.

Practical knowledge


The class "isn't just about being a mechanic," Higginbotham said. "A lot of these kids are interested in science."

On Tuesday, many of the students worked on model cars that they would later race and purposely crash.
The assignment was intended to teach them how an axle works and the difference between potential and kinetic energy, as well as design elements that increase durability.

"It's just an awesome experience," senior Naim Algaheim, 17, said as he put the gas tank back on a motorcycle. "There aren't classes like this anymore."

Naim, in the Members Only jacket, doesn't think he'll be a mechanic; he's thinking more about a career in business.

But if his car breaks down on the side of a road, he wants to have an idea why, he said.

Elective fills up quickly


About 30 students are taking the class, offered just one period during the school day and also as a twice-a-week after-school program, which is open to students from across the district.

Local 1414 machinists helped get the old shop classroom, mothballed for years, cleaned up and outfitted.
Higginbotham was recruited to teach it last year, and for sixth period each day he happily pulls on blue coveralls over his history-class shirt and tie.

"It's awesome coming to work," he said. "I'm a history nerd, and now I get to mess around with cars and call it work."

While the after-school program still has openings, the sixth-period elective class quickly filled with 30 students before the school year started.

While his classmates tested their model cars, propelled by mousetraps, junior Tyson Krug, 16, held his, wondering why it would go only a few inches. Maybe it was the gobs of glue around the wheels, or perhaps not enough potential energy in the string-mousetrap mechanism.

Higginbotham, wandering among the groups of students, paused at Tyson's table.

"This is great," the teacher said, asking how it was going and getting a frown in response. "This is why we do it."

Moving beyond mistakes


Engineers and car designers also mess up before they come up with a good design, he told Tyson.
Mechanics have to guess and test to see what's wrong with a car.

That's real life, Higginbotham said.

"Screw up like 10 more times," he said. "You'll finally get it."